North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's official visit on Tuesday to Army Unit 842, which handles the North's missile systems, suggests he has gained full control of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons, experts say. Baek Seung-joo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said on Wednesday, "Last month, U.S. officials started saying that the regime has regained stability, which is based on the view that Kim Jong-un has gained control of the North's nuclear weapons."
◆ N.Korea's Missile Man
North Korea's highest-ranking military officer has control over the country's nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. State media referred to Kim Jong-un as the supreme commander soon after his father Kim Jong-il’s death. An order from the supreme commander to deploy nuclear weapons would then be carried by the chief of General Staff, Gen. Ri Yong-ho, to the commander of the unit. In the process, Gen. Kim Myong-guk, a four-star general and in charge of military operations at the General Staff, apparently advises Ri on strategy.
The unit controls all of North Korea's missile facilities, including the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and missile launch pad in Musudan-ri. The officer with his finger directly on the button is its commander, Gen. Choe Sang-ryo.
He was promoted from two-star to three-star general in April of 2010, when a new generation of officers were given more responsibility in preparation for the dynastic succession. Choe was appointed to the Workers Party's Central Military Commission at a party congress in September that year which marked Kim Jong-un's official debut. Until then he had been an obscure figure.
◆ Safe Pairs of Hands
Chung Young-tae at the Korea Institute for National Unification said, "The final decision on the use of nuclear weapons is made by the top military commander, but since the party wields tremendous power, an additional decision-making process is necessary at the party level." According to Workers Party regulations, the Central Military Commission, which oversees the armed forces, handles that decision process.
The chairmanship of the Central Military Commission has been vacant since the death of Kim Jong-il, but Kim Jong-un seems to be the acting chairman, said Ryu Dong-ryeol at the Police Science Institute. "Ri Yong-ho, Kim Myong-guk and Choe Sang-ryo are all either members or vice chairmen of the commission, which shows how important it is," he added.
One researcher at a state-run think tank said, "To prevent a possible provocation by a rogue unit officer or prevent mistakes in the chain of command to launch missiles, a two and three-tiered safety system is also in place." There is also the authentication code, which remains a secret to everyone except the supreme commander, chief of General Staff and unit commander.
State security agents and military intelligence constantly monitor the unit commander.